The public's deep distrust of government helped fuel Amendment 4, the so-called "Hometown Democracy" initiative on the November ballot. St. Petersburg is only feeding that distrust with a deceitful maneuver designed to circumvent residents' voting rights if Amendment 4 becomes part of the Florida Constitution. City officials should work to defeat the amendment on its merits, not design a sneaky way to circumvent it.
Amendment 4 would give voters the right to veto any change a city or county wants to make in its "comprehensive land use plan," a detailed document that in part dictates what sort of development is allowed in what geographic areas. The plans may be hundreds of pages long. They must pass state muster, and each community's land development rules must be consistent with the plans.
St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, like a lot of government officials around the state, is understandably opposed to Amendment 4 and the expense and complications it would create if it passes. So at tonight's City Council meeting, Nurse will ask the council to consider creating what is essentially a decoy comprehensive plan. The decoy would limit St. Petersburg residents' opportunity to vote on changes in the city's real comprehensive plan.
The decoy would be titled the "Comprehensive Land Use Plan," because that's the wording used in the Amendment 4 ballot question. But this sham is no plan and it certainly isn't comprehensive. It is one map which, using a few pretty colors, shows the city divided into five general categories of land use: neighborhoods, corridors, centers, recreation/open space and preservation. Don't look to the map to explain what developers actually could build in each of those categories. That information is contained in the real comprehensive plan and the city's land development regulations. They are the real guides for growth.
If Nurse has his way, city residents would only get to vote when a change would affect those general categories — for example, if a developer wanted to build something not generally allowed in a category and the city wanted to change the color on that property to accommodate the developer. St. Petersburg residents would not get to vote on a potentially vast array of other changes the city could make to the real comprehensive plan and its accompanying future land use map — amendments that could affect individual property owners or modify the city's vision for its future.
Concern about Amendment 4 is not misplaced. The amendment could create chaos in local planning, stifle growth, result in multiple expensive referendums and vastly increase local government legal fees. But if St. Petersburg officials don't like the amendment, they should explain why and work for its defeat. Setting up a dummy comprehensive plan to subvert the voters' wishes only further convinces the public that they were right to distrust government in the first place.